Text: Acts 9:1-19
Acts is the story of the gospel spreading throughout the Mediterranean world. There are some key moments in that story, hinge points that dramatically affect the future of the fledgling church. And perhaps none is bigger than the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus.
You probably know the story. Saul was a Pharisee, scrupulous in following the law. He was concerned about this sectarian movement within Judaism that followed a would-be messiah named Jesus. This growing movement was seen by many as a threat to orthodox faith. Saul’s job was to combat this movement, and he did his job very well. A couple of weeks ago, we read the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and learned that a young man named Saul was there, watching everybody’s coats. Later we read that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, committing them to prison.”
That brings us to this morning’s scripture. Saul has gotten the OK from the high priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus, looking for followers of the Way, as followers of Jesus were called, so that he could arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem.
But Saul’s plans are suddenly turned upside down. On the way to Damascus, he is knocked to the ground and blinded by a flash of light. There is a voice from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks who is speaking and the answer is, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Saul is suddenly and dramatically met by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and nothing was ever the same again. Saul went from being the great persecutor of the church to the great missionary of the church who brought the gospel to the Gentiles. We know him better as Paul, the name he was known by in those Gentile and Greek-speaking lands.
It is an amazing, dramatic conversion. And I’ve got to admit: my experience is light years away from Saul’s. Faith came slowly and gradually for me, not all at once. There was no blinding light or voice from heaven. I had not been a persecutor of the church or lived a terrible life. I really didn’t have a chance – I mean, I was nine years old when I made a profession of faith and was baptized.
We may find Saul’s conversion to be fascinating, powerful, miraculous, we might find it to be a lot of things, but chances are, we have a hard time relating to it personally. For most of us, meeting Jesus does not involve being blinded on the road to Des Moines. However, there is another conversion taking place in this story, one that may be closer to what often happens in our lives.
Saul had been knocked to the ground by what had happened. Jesus told him to get up and go into the city. He rose to his feet but could not see. His traveling companions helped him along. He went to Damascus and for three days he did not eat or drink. Saul might have figured that it was all over for him.
Then Ananias enters the story. We really don’t know anything about him except that he was a disciple in Damascus. He is only mentioned in the Bible in this passage and in Acts 22, when Paul retells the story of his conversion. He may have been a resident of Damascus, but it is very possible that he was in Damascus as a refugee. Perhaps he had left Jerusalem because of the persecution that Saul himself was leading.
Ananias has a vision. God tells him to go to Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him so that he might regain his sight. And Ananias says to God, “Say what? You have got to be kidding! Saul wants to see people like me dead!”
Ananias is trying to his best to steer clear of Saul, and God wants him to go see Saul! “But the Lord said to (Ananias), ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.’”
Maybe the biggest miracle in this story is that Ananias listens to God and goes to Saul. He has serious doubts. But he went in faith, and maybe the most amazing words in this passage are these: “Brother Saul.” “Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’”
Ananias shows an incredible amount of faith and grace. He is a model of welcome and hospitality.
Paul became the great missionary of the church, establishing and encouraging churches and spreading the faith throughout the Mediterranean world. He wrote a good bit of the New Testament. We all know about Paul. But where would Paul be without Ananias? Without one to be God’s instrument of healing? Without one to welcome him and introduce him to the Christian community?
People come to Christ in many ways. Sometimes in dramatic fashion, like Paul. For most of us, it is in much quieter, less flashy ways. But we all have opportunities like Ananias – to offer God’s welcome and grace to others.
Paul had to seem like the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus. It did not even seem in the realm of possibility. But the core of our faith is the idea that change is possible, right? - that God can bring about new life. We may want to give up on others, but God never gives up on anyone. If Saul could change, anybody can change.
Saul’s background helped make him the great apostle of the early church. He was learned and well-versed in the scriptures. He moved easily in Jewish circles and in academic circles. He had the gifts necessary to lead the church. God called him and transformed his heart, and the skills he had used to persecute the church were now used to build up the church.
The conversion of Saul helps us to see that conversion is not simply a private matter. It wasn’t simply between Saul and God, or even Saul and God and Ananias. The entire community at Damascus is apparently as accepting and trusting of Saul as was Ananias. This former enemy is immediately baptized into the family of faith and then sits down to eat a meal with them. After being nurtured by this remarkable Damascus community for only a few days, Saul is ready to begin his ministry for Jesus.
Like Ananias, God calls us to extend God’s welcome to the stranger, to invite into the family of faith those who may be on the outside, realizing that in one way or another that includes all of us. It may mean taking the initiative in going to those who are difficult to call brother or sister.
And conversion is not a one-time deal. It is a continuing journey. We continue to learn, to grow, to be surprised by life and surprised by God, as Ananias was. You might even say that despite having seen the amazing work of the Spirit in the life of the church, Ananias himself was a little bit blind to the ways that God might work, and that this was a conversion of sorts for him as well.
I have actually been thinking about this idea of blindness and being able to see lately – the notion that this pandemic and all that has happened over these past months has in a sense helped us to see what we did not see before. You migth think of this as an apocalyptic time, and in a sense it really is. The word apocalypse literally means revealing. Things are being revealed.
Millions of people live paycheck to paycheck, and the disparities of income are only widening. The pandemic has shown a spotlight on that. Have you seen on the news the lines of people in their vehicles, lined up for miles and waiting for hours for food to be distributed? Or folks lined up outside on the sidewalk waiting 6 or 7 hours to have a chance to sign up in person for unemployment benefits? And all of this was before the moratorium on evictions was lifted. The need will only grow.
Pervasive racial injustice has come into full view. People of color have suffered far more from the pandemic, and then so many instances of brutality toward black people, including but extending far beyond the killing of George Floyd, have made the issue impossible to ignore.
I went to what I would consider good schools. I consider myself a well-informed person. Yet in the past few months, I have time and again realized how little I knew. Somehow I did not know that following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, peonage systems existed in many southern states. Black men could be arrested for minor offenses, even things like not holding down a steady job, and sent to prison where they would be leased out to landowners to work the fields – essentially a continuation of slavery. How did I not know that?
I had heard the term redlining, and had a general idea of what it was, but did not know how pervasive or how awful it was, destroying entire communities. Why did I not learn these things in school? It might be because our whole culture has been wearing blinders. I just learned a few weeks ago that people who can’t afford bail and have to stay in jail until trial are charged jail fees, and along with court costs and fines and interest, indigent people with no ability to pay can easily rack up 15 or $20,000 in debt – sometimes even if they are innocent. Iowa is one of the worst states for this.
This has been an eye-opening time. We may not have been struck down on the road to Damascus, but all of this is to say that we can be blind about a lot of things. And we all need humility, because we don’t know what we don’t know and we cannot see what we can’t see.
Saul was blinded so that he might come to truly see. There may be a lot that we do not see. We can be blind to the people around us, blind to the way our actions affect others, sometimes blind to family members, blind even to the truth about ourselves. We are imperfect people. We have blind spots, all of us. And we are all deeply loved by Christ, who offers us amazing grace and leads us to new life and helps us to see. As the hymn says, “I once was blind but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
God comes to us in our blindness, in our need, perhaps sending someone like Ananias to help us. So that we can see. And so that we may be instruments of Christ’s hope and healing. Amen.